Immigrant Bengalis

My Awareness of Homosexuality in the US
Shyamal Sarkar

It was an awkward moment for me in the JFK airport when I arrived for the first time in America. Bidhan, my college friend, came to receive me atthe airport; he literally pushed me off when I embraced him. I was surprised and my smile vanished.

What a relief I had seeing Bidhan in the waiting crowd after a twenty-eight-hour journey from Kolkata with a stomach full of anxieties! Hugging a waiting friend was a natural expression for me. But he did not like it. I was baffled and said to myself, “What’s wrong? Why he rebuffed me like this? Is my friend a changed man, staying here for just a year?”

Bidhan quickly realized how I felt by looking at my face. “Don’t try to hug a man in public; no one does that here.” His voice was cold. 

I came out of the airport remaining puzzled, “What kind of a strange custom is it that a friend cannot embrace another friend?”

Later I was told that hugging another man was considered an indication of homosexuality. 

*** *** ***

Bengalis perform Bijoy Dashamir Kola Kuli, a traditional ritual of three-time mutual hugging, as the expression of greetings after the Durga Puja festival. Many friends in India often stroll in the streets keeping their arms on others’ shoulders. I guess the Kola Kuli and friends-in-arms would be labelled as homosexual signs in America. What an irony: an appreciated ritual in one culture would be prohibited in another!

Bidhan was afraid for being labeled as gay in the airport!

The social acceptance of homosexuality in the late seventies was not the same as in 2014. Homosexuals were considered to be a strange and inferior breed with a weird life style. I was told at times to be careful with the male colleagues in the workplace; I was also advised to keep an ample distance while standing in a line, or travelling in the bus or train. I came from India where people did not like to leave space in between them while standing in line, for fear that someone might cut into that gap.

*** *** ***

One comical incident happened with us - we were booed as homosexuals; the reality was, we walked together holding hands being drunk and wobbly.

It was in 1978. We three classmates lived in a shared apartment in Queens. As new immigrants, we had to be frugal in many areas except drinking alcohol, especially whiskies, which we did not have for many months. 

One Saturday night we had dinner at our classmate Dilip’s apartment. We all had too much to drink that night, but one of us became intoxicated and was not able walk back home.  It was late and the Queens streets were empty; two of us had to grab our sick friend’s arms from both sides to hold him up and walk back to our apartment which was a few blocks away.

Suddenly, someone from a sidewalk restaurant shouted at us, “Look at three queer faggots; can’t even walk straight.” A chorus of loud giggles followed the dirty comment.

“The homos could not even wait to go inside…” Again another loud utterance followed by an outburst of vulgar laughs. They yelled and howled at us continuously until we left them behind at the turn of the block. Our sick friend was too drunk to understand the meaning of the slurs, but he was enough intoxicated to start a fight. However we walked away quietly, being three good Bengalis.

*** *** ***

Though it was an amusing incident, it was my first experience of enduring the slangs “faggot” and “queer,” which are often used for homosexuals.  The gay-slur did not bother me much because I was not a homosexual, but I had felt the heat of hatred against the homosexual people in the seventies in the US.

Sometimes this prejudice turned so extreme that gay persons became victims of physical violence. The chauvinists often expressed their macho attitude because homosexuals generally were docile and non-confrontational.

Mathew Shepard was a non-violent, peaceful and decent human being, did not harm anyone in his life - but he was killed by bigots in 1998 because was a homosexual.  Mathew was a 24 year-old student of the University of Wyoming. He was savagely tortured and tied to a fence and left to die in a desolate place on a cold night.

Some countries had homophobic laws too!

The British Government prosecuted and imprisoned Alan Turing for no good reason; he was punished because he was homosexual. Alan Turing was a Princeton Ph.D., a genius mathematician, a pioneer in computer science whose theories are taught in universities today. He served British Intelligence during World War II and had decoded successfully the encryption of German secret services. Many say that the war ended two years earlier due to his extraordinary contributions for detecting the enemy’s attack plans.  How sad that a man who served his country so faithfully, who contributed so much to the field of mathematics, was nevertheless marginalized because he was homosexual. It happened in England. Alan was so humiliated that he committed suicide in jail.

Before Alan Turing, England had punished another admired citizen, Oscar Wilde, too because he was homosexual. Oscar was a famous poet and a leading playwright, yet he had to do hard labor in prison for two years for his sexual orientation. Oscar was so disgusted with England that he wrote a series of poems about the rhythmic life of imprisonment, criticizing England, before leaving for France for good.

Recently India went one step backward and rejoined the homophobic country club and declared that homosexuality is illegal.

*** *** ***

I did not have the chance to know gay people closely before starting a pharmacy business in Upper Manhattan.

Anthony Murphy, a six feet tall, white handsome employee of the pharmacy was gay. I never thought Anthony could be gay until Ruby, my wife, told me so. She has an uncanny ability to spot a gay man in a crowd. By the time, I already had worked with Tony for a few weeks; the new revelation of his sexuality did not bother me in the work place.

Anthony was friendly and efficient. He came to work much earlier than his scheduled hours with a flask full of green tea and turned on the radio to listen to classical music. One of his responsibilities was to collect overdue payments from customers who had charge accounts with the pharmacy. His voice was friendly and firm to get the past due amounts, and he did get the payments. Tony decorated the pharmacy windows regularly for Halloween, Christmas, Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day. He liked to do this job; he had an artistic taste for window decoration and did it as well as any professional.

 The HIV/AIDS had started to be an epidemic in the late eighties. The pharmacy benefited with additional businesses of the HIV/AIDS patients who came to the pharmacy because of Anthony.

I had the opportunity to know the gay patients every day. Being their pharmacist, I had witnessed the failure of their medicine regimens, which were supposed to increase T-Cells to bolster their defense systems against HIV. I also knew about the painful side effects of the HIV drugs; but I was a bystander to watch their agonies when their eyesight gradually became foggier and then descended to blindness from a strange fungal overgrowth. Their faces had a veil of fear of dying from the killer disease, which I never saw before on any other group of patients. Most of them were in their thirties, almost my age, and they were dying slowly every day, in front of my eyes, and I had nothing to console them with except saying “New medicines are coming out every day for the cure. Keep up the hope.”

It was always a sad experience attending the funerals of AIDS patients with whom I was emotionally attached somehow. I thought the AIDS patients were the innocent victims of their sexual orientation. The sexuality they had, not by their own choice, came to them naturally.

One of the painful funerals was for Raphael Molina; Ralph was a social study teacher in a Christian school. About four years ago, his job contract was not renewed; he was a victim of his sexual orientation.

Incidentally, the movie Philadelphia was screened at that time; the movie was based on a gay lawyer who had to go to court after being victimized and losing his partnership in the law firm. The gay lawyer won the discrimination case after a long court battle. Hollywood made a statement against homophobia with the Philadelphia movie.

Ralph could not muster the resources to fight against a big religious school system of New York City. He became unemployed when Tom Hanks won the Oscar as Best Actor for the gay lawyer’s role in Philadelphia.

Raphael was Anthony's roommate and used to come to the pharmacy to spend time with Anthony. Later I requested Ralph to join us as an employee to take care of Spanish speaking customers. We had a big Latino clientele.

Ralph was alive three more years. Over that time, we became good friends; I had shared my experiences living in the US as an Indian as he did with his experiences as a Latino in New York. He was sad for Latinos for their sectarian mentality; he said that Latinos had created their own ghettos in the city and never been serious to be a part of the American mainstream. I also thought the same was true of the Indian and Bangladeshi immigrant communities. The main reason of this trend was not necessarily a cultural problem; it was due to the feeling of economic and social insecurity. The picture is different with the Second Generation Immigrants - they did not feel that way and did not stay in the so-called ghettos.

In the funeral home Ralph was laid in a half-opened coffin; his face did not show any pain of AIDS. At that moment, I remembered what Ralph had told me, 'I am marginalized for a wrong reason, but they have skeletons in their closets which will come out someday!'

*** *** ***

What Raphael had referred to was the acts of the Christian churches His death wish became true in 2003 when the Vatican had to struggle to defend their priests against a flood of pedophilia cases involving many Catholic churches. Simultaneously, many other reports came out about the widespread homosexual practices among the Catholic priests.  Eight US dioceses declared bankruptcy and others had to settle for an amount that rose to 3.1 billion dollars for the pedophilia of their priests. Ralph would have been happy seeing the embarrassment and punishment of the Church that had penalized him unfairly.

In India, many orphanages were managed by celibate priests in various Ashrams, Maths and Missions. The abuse of pedophilia did not come to surface while I was in India. However, it was an open secret that some of the Brahmacharis of the organizations were homosexual.

One gay activist in India, Ashok Row Kavi, described that when he was studying at the Ramakrishna Mission, a monk told him that “the Mission was not a place to run away from oneself, and that one should live boldly, ignoring social prejudice”.

Hindu scriptures contain many surprising examples of diversity in both sex and gender. Medieval texts narrate how the God Ayyappa was born of the union between the Gods Shiva and Vishnu when the latter temporarily took a female form, Mohini.

A number of fourteenth-century texts in Sanskrit and Bengali Krittibasa Ramayana narrate how king Bhagiratha, who brought the sacred river Ganga from heaven to earth, was miraculously born to and raised by two co-widows, who made love together with divine blessing. These texts explain his name Bhagiratha from the word bhaga because he was born of two vulvas.

*** *** ***

1985 was an important year to remember. A matinee Idol, Rock Hudson, passed away suffering from AIDS; he had a secret homosexual life. I was surprised that the hero of our youth, a lady killer, a six feet five inches tall muscular guy, Rock was gay!

Unlike Rock Hudson, many celebrities in the West came out of the closet and declared themselves as gay: Elton John (musician), Ricky Martin (Rock Star), Greg Louganis (Olympic Diver), Anderson Cooper (CNN) and Martina Navratilova (Tennis).

No celebrity in India, except Rituparno Ghosh, openly declared himself (or herself) as homosexual.

Actor Jody Foster also declared herself as lesbian.  Had John Hinckley, convicted for shooting President Ronald Reagan in 1981, known that Jody was gay, he might not have attempted to kill President Reagan to impress her to be his girlfriend!

Living in USA for the last 35 years, I think the social prejudice and hate crime against the gay people are changing; people are becoming more tolerant of gays. The credit goes to social awareness created by the media. The belief that homosexuals were an unnatural deviation of human sexual behavior has been fading away gradually. There are many studies to demonstrate that homosexuality is not a disease; it is not someone’s desire to be in one category than the other; it is a natural development of human mind and body. Had there been a choice, the ex-vice president of US, Dick Cheney, an ultra-social conservative, would not allow his daughter, Mary, to be a lesbian.

*** *** ***

When we grew up in India, we did not see gay people being marginalized. Perhaps Hindu religion has never been too critical of homosexuality.

One Hindu Philosopher, Krishnamurthy, considered that homosexuality, like heterosexuality, has been a fact for thousands of years and becomes a problem only because humans over-focus on sex.

Another teacher of Hindu Religion, Ravi Shankar, said, “Every individual has both male and female in them. Sometimes one dominates, sometimes the other; it is all fluid.”

Is the expression of homosexuality related to financial affluence? I do not have the answer but I think that a majority of Indians do not know much about homosexuality. Perhaps Indians are so busy (and desperate) to satisfy their basic needs that they do not have the luxury to notice who is homosexual and who is not.

Unlike in USA, finding a gay partner was not easy in India because the gay people did not openly display their gay traits in India. That was the problem with forty year old Rakesh Gupta of Kolkata. He did not know who was a real homosexual and who was an imposter.  Bi-sexual Rakesh met handsome Sibu, in a shopping mall in Kolkata. He was blackmailed by a gang of youths after he entered into a homosexual relationship with Sibu. The gang demanded money with the threat to show the sex video to his family and employer. When Rakesh discovered his mistake, it was too late; the extortionists tortured him before killing him by strangulation.

I was shocked by the news because I knew Rakesh professionally. When I went to his office after his death, no one wanted to talk about Mr. Gupta, as if he had never been there. Perhaps it was a taboo to talk about the homosexuality of an employee in India, even when he was tortured, strangulated and killed. I was surprised again by the indifference.

In middle 2002, I took over a restaurant in the Chelsea area of New York City.  Chelsea has been known as a village of gay people; the Broadway show, Rent, was based on the gay people of Chelsea of the late eighties.  We had almost all of the employees who were gay to serve the clientele in Chelsea. Happily I can say that I did not see the dying faces of the Rent character on Chelsea streets in 2002; there must have been changes that happened in the late nineties with better awareness, the discovery of cocktail use of HIV drugs, and change of lifestyle.

NOTE: Readers interested in commenting on this article should send their remarks to     

(Posted December 1, 2014)

Comments from MR received on Dec 5:  

"I read Mr. Shyamal Sarkar's article on homosexuality with great interest. Not too many of the educated folks in our immigrant communities, be it from India or anywhere else in the subcontinent, are as yet convinced that  homosexuality is not a life-style choice, but a choice forced upon them by mother Nature herself, just as it is thrust upon a number of nonhuman animals in the wilderness. Almost all religious establishments are unanimous in their condemnation of the 'lewd' behavior of the gay people, so much so that in Iran, for example, anyone rumored to be homosexual, whether the charge is true or not, is immediately strung up by a rope till his/her death. I believe most so-called Islamic states are itching to follow suit. In the US things are totally different,  because the American society is so much more dynamic and scientifically alert.To see how  far this society can go to undo the wrongs that were done before, all that one has to do is look at the state of Wyoming where the poor lad Mathew Shepard lost his life in 1998 just because he was a 'faggot', is also one of the states in 2014 where gay marriage has been legalized. This is called modern civilization.  
My hats off to Mr. Sarkar for having written such a well-researched article."